Golden Football Magazine
AAFC Championship Games
1949: San Francisco 49ers @ Cleveland Browns
This series covers the history of the AAFC through the prism of its yearly championship games.
Note: The gray boxes contain asides that provide interesting material but could be skipped without losing the continuity of the article.


Frankie Albert


Joe Perry vs Browns in '49


Alyn Beals


Mac Speedie


Dante Lavelli


Don Garlin runs vs Yankees in playoff game.

After the brief euphoria at the end of the '48 season, when a delegation of AAFC owners met with NFL counterparts to discuss a merger, the AAFC faced 1949 with little optimism.
  • The New York Yankees subsumed the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dan Topping of the Yankees (a co-owner of the baseball Yankees) served as president of the merged team while Branch Rickey (GM of the baseball Dodgers) reigned as chairman of the board.
  • The ownership of the Chicago Rockets threw in the towel and basically dumped the team on the league's doorstep. New owners were found who changed the name of the franchise to "Hornets." Six former Brooklyn players were assigned to the Yankees while the rest of the Dodger squad went to Chicago. Nevertheless, the Hornets drew fewer fans than the Rockets had.
  • Amidst all this turmoil, Commissioner Jonas Ingram resigned. Deputy Commissioner O. O. Kessing succeeded to the top position but with only a one year contract. The owners knew that, one way or another, this would be the AAFC's last year.
  • Merger talks between the two leagues continued off and on throughout the year.

Down to seven teams, the AAFC did away with divisions and scheduled every team home and home against every other team.

  • The big news for the '49 season was that the Cleveland Browns, who had won all three championships since the league began in 1946, compiling a 38-3-1 record, lost a game and tied two. Coach Paul Brown had expected a tough season and he got it. In September, he had said, Our job is getting progressively more difficult. Sometime someone is going to get us, and this year every team in our league is stronger than ever before.
  • The San Francisco 49ers, the lone team to defeat the Browns (a 56-28 thrashing in San Francisco October 9 to end Cleveland's remarkable 29-game unbeaten streak), finished second with a 9-3 mark.
  • The Yankees took third at 8-4 while 4-4-2 Buffalo - the two ties having come against Cleveland - grabbed the last playoff spot.
    The 49er players demanded an extra $500 apiece for each playoff game and threatened to strike if their demand wasn't met. Owner Tony Morabito had risked almost everything he owned to buy out his minority owners. So he refused to give in, preferring to forfeit the game to paying the bonuses. Coach Buck Shaw stepped in and convinced his men to play the game out of loyalty to their fans.

Both semifinal playoff matches went as expected with the higher seed winning at home.

  • The Browns defeated the Bills 31-21 while the Niners, despite the distraction, prevailed over the Yanks 17-7.
  • That gave San Francisco, the league's second-best team for several years, a shot at the championship. But they'd have to win it in wintry conditions on Lake Erie.
With both leagues having suffered another $2 million in losses and only the Redskins and Bears showing a profit, a resolution of the conflict was announced just days before the AAFC championship game December 11.
  • Three AAFC teams would join the NFL: the two most solid franchises, Cleveland and San Francisco, and the Colts in Baltimore, a city where the NFL desperately wanted a presence.
  • The other teams would disband, and their players would be dispersed.
  • From the AAFC point of view, the agreement was more a surrender than a merger. The owners' dream of becoming another conference of the NFL - as exemplified by the "C" in "AAFC" - wouldn't happen.

So the championship game would be the last hurrah for the All-American Football Conference.

  • Statistically, the 49ers seemed to be the better team since they led the league in most yards gained as well as fewest yards allowed. The Browns ranked second in offensive yards.
  • SF led in points, 416, while Cleveland surrendered the fewest, 171.
  • Both QBs, Otto Graham of Cleveland and Frankie Albert of the Niners, ranked in the top five of every passing category.
    Yards gained passing: 1. Graham 2785, 3. Albert 1862
    Completion %: 2. Graham 56.5, 5. Albert 49.6
    TD passes: 1. Albert 27, 2. Graham 19
  • Such prolific passers must have had outstanding receivers.
    Receptions: 1. Mac Speedie, Cleveland, 62; 3. Alyn Beals, SF, 44
    Receiving yards: 1. Speedie 1028; 3. Beals 678
    Receiving average: 4. Dante Lavelli, Cleveland 16.96; 5. Speedie 15.56
  • Joe Perry of the Niners (783y), called "The Jet" because of his incredible burst of speed, and Marion Motley of the Browns (570) ranked as the best two rushers in the AAFC.

Perhaps as a nod to home field advantage, the oddsmakers installed theBrowns as a 7-point favorite.

  • Depending on the weather, a crowd between 15,000 and 30,000 was expected. The forecast called for temperaturs in the mid-40s with a drizzly rain in the afternoon.
  • The winner would meet the NFL champion in an exhibition game in August or September.
  • Lavelli would return to the Cleveland starting lineup for the first time since twisting his knee in the last game with San Fran on October 30. Dante had played part of the previous Sunday's playoff win over Buffalo and celebrated his return with a 51y TD pass on his first play.
  • On the negative side for the home team, G Weldon Humble was questionable after reinjuring his knee against the Bills. Bill Willis, the anchor of the Browns D line, would play with a heavilly bandaged right hand after suffering a partial fracture in the previous contest.
  • The Browns feared SF HB Don Garlin, who turned in a spectacular performance on the 49ers' previous visit to Cleveland at mid-season: 116y on 11 carries with another 88 on five receptions.
  • Coach Buck Shaw had his own injuries to worry about. HBs John Strzykalski and Eddie Carr, would miss the game, but G Don Clark had returned to action in the semifinal game against New York.
  • If the game ended in a tie, the teams would enter sudden death OT until a champion was decided.

Cleveland coach Paul Brown spent more time the day before the game answering questions about the NFL-AAFC peace agreement.

  • Finally, someone asked about the championship game. What championship? Brown replied with a hollow sound. Before turning to Sunday's game, he stated that the AAFC raised the standards of the game, because competition purifies everything.
  • Saturday morning's snow flurries turned to rain in the afternoon, with rain or snow forecast for the next day. The Browns coach said bad weather would hurt both teams.
  • He challenged his defense to play well or we will not be able to retain the title. The smallest score we held them to this year was 21 points. That was in the exhibition game in August when they tied us. Next time, they scored 56 points, and the last time we met it was 28, which gives their offense an average of 35 points a game against us. That's frightening. The Browns had allowed just 10 points per game against the rest of the league.
1949 San Francisco 49ers
# Player Pos. Hgt. Wgt. College Exp.
22 PeteWismann C 6-0 215 Miami (OH) 1
23 Bill Johnson C 6-3 228 Texas A&M 2
24 Tino Sabuco C 6-1 206 Wayne State 1
31 Don Clark G 5-11 197 USC 2
33 Bruno Banducci G 5-11 216 Stanford 6
34 Visco Grgich G 5-11 217 Santa Clara 4
37 Homer Hobbs G 5-11 210 Georgia 1
40 Jack Carpenter T 6-0 240 Columbia 3
41 John Woundenberg T 6-3 225 Denver 7
45 Charley Quilter T 6-1 240 Tyler JC 1
46 Ray Evans T 6-1 225 Texas-El Paso 1
47 Bob Mike T 6-1 220 Florida A&M 2
48 Joe Morgan T 6-1 245 McNeese State 1
52 Hal Shoener E 6-3 200 Iowa 2
53 Alyn Beals E 6-0 188 Santa Clara 4
54 Gail Bruce E a6-1 205 Washington 2
55 Paul Salata E 6-2 190 USC 1
58 Nick Susoeff E 6-1 215 Washington State 4
59 Ned Maloney E 6-1 190 Purdue 2
63 FrankAlbert QB 5-10 166 Stanford 4
64 Bev Wallace QB 6-2 180 Compton JC 3
72 Norm Standlee FB a6-2 238 Stanford 5
74 Joe Perry FB a6-0 200 Compton JC 2
81 Len Eshmont HB 5-11 180 Fordham 5
82 Joe Vetrano HB 5-9 190 Marquette 4
83 SamCathcart HB 6-0 175 Cal-Santa Barbara 1
85 Eddie Carr HB 6-0 185 None 3
88 Don Garlin HB 5-11 188 USC 1
91 John Strzykalski HB 5-9 190 Marquette 4
92 Lowell Wagner DB 6-0 194 USC 4
93 Jim Cason HB 6-0 170 LSU 2
1949 Cleveland Browns
# Player Pos. Hgt. Wgt. College Exp.
20 Lou Saban C 6-0 202 Indiana 4
22 Frank Gatski C 6-3 233 Marshall 4
24 Tommy Thompson C 6-1 221 William & Mary 1
30 Bill Willis G 6-2 213 Ohio State 4
32 Lin Houston G 6-0 213 Ohio State 4
34 Bob Gaudio G 5-10 219 Ohio State 3
35 Alex Agase G 5-10 212 Purdue 3
36 Ed Ulinski G 5-11 203 Marshall 4
38 Weldon Humble G 6-1 221 Rice 3
42 Derrell Palmer T 6-2 240 TCU 4
44 Lou Rymkus T 6-4 231 Notre Dame 5
46 Lou Groza T 6-3 240 Ohio State 4
48 Forrest Grigg T 6-2 294 Tulsa 4
49 Joe Spencer T 6-3 239 Oklahoma State 2
50 John Yonaker E 6-5 222 Notre Dame 4
52 George Young E 6-3 214 Baldwin-Wallace 4
55 Bill O'Connor E 6-4 220 Notre Dame 2
56 Dante Lavelli E 6-0 191 Ohio State 4
58 Mac Speedie E 6-3 203 Utah 4
59 Horace Gillom E 6-1 221 Ohio State 3
60 Otto Graham QB 6-1 196 Northwestern 4
62 Cliff Lewis DB 5-11 170 Duke 4
72 Ed Susteric FB 6-0 205 Findlay 1
74 Tony Adamle FB 6-0 215 Ohio State 3
76 Marion Motley FB 6-1 232 South Carolina St. 4
80 Warren Lahr HB 5-11 189 Western Reserve 1
82 Tommy James DB 5-10 185 Ohio State 3
85 Ara Parseghian HB 5-10 194 Akron 2
86 Dub Jones HB 6-4 202 LSU/Tulane 4
90 Edgar Jones HB 5-10 192 Pittsburgh 5
92 Les Horvath HB 5-10 173 Ohio State 3
99 Bill Boedeker HB 5-11 192 DePaul 4
Pregame
  • Rain fell until an hour before kickoff, and only 22,550 fans turned out.
  • The field was muddy and slippery, hampering both offenses. Many times receivers from both teams failed to reach the spot where Graham or Albert expected them to be when they threw.
  • Amazingly, neither team committed a turnover, and they combined for just a single penalty for offsides against Cleveland.
  • Quarter 1
    Cleveland received the opening kickoff and started throwing immediately. But nothing clicked, and the Browns punted.
    They showed a new wrinkle on defense. When they suspected the southpaw Albert would pass, MG Willis moved to RT, switching places with Chubby Grigg. Frankie would complete only 9 of 24 for a mere 108y.
    SF ran the ball three times without success and punted, the Browns gaining 8y on the exchange at their 44.
    On the first snap, Graham fired a 38y pass to Speedie to the 19. After Dub Jones made a yard, Motley added 10 for 1st-and-goal on the 8. Marion took a wide flip-out but lost 3 trying to get around RE. Graham then called what today would be labeled a QB draw to gain 7 over G to the 4. Edgar "Special Delivery" Jones smashed over LG twice, making 2y each time to score with 7:20 remaining in the period. T Lou "The Toe" Groza added the EP. Browns 7 49ers 0
    Neither offense produced much the rest of the period.
  • Quarter 2
    The Niners mounted their first threat. Albert finally threw a pass on the first play of the quarter, connecting with Beals for 9. This stopped the visitors rolling to the 24. But E Horace Gillom threw Albert for a 10y loss on third down and Joe Vetrano's FG attempt from the 41 missed.
    Cleveland also sputtered offensively, getting only as far as their own 38.
    The half ended 7-0 Browns.

  • Quarter 3
    Graham completed an 11-yarder to Lavelli and a 25-yarder to Dub Jones to get the Browns as far as the 5. But Edgar Jones was held without gain on the last two downs, and the 49ers took the ball.
    SF made two first downs before Albert had to punt, the kick being returned 16y by Cliff Lewis to his 37.
    After an incompletion, the next play brought the fans to their feet came. Motley took the ball on a trap play and was deep in the SF backfield before anyone saw him. When DB Lowell Wagner caught up at the 7, Motley turned around just in time to apply an effective stiff arm. He was thrown off stride but still made it to the end zone. Browns 14 49ers 0
    DB Warren Lahr produced the defensive gem of the day during the period on an Albert pass to E Paul Salata. Lahr knocked the ball away just as the 49er E was about to make a catch for a sure TD. The effort even drew praise from Salata, who patted Lahr on the back as he returned upfield.
    After returning the kick on their 26, the visitors finally cranked up a scoring drive. Albert completed three passes for 20, 10, and 10 to put the pigskin on the Cleveland 24 as the quarter ended.
  • Quarter 4
    After an incomplete pass, Salata feinted loose from the defense of Lewis and Tony Adamle, took in Albert's pass, and carried the ball over with only 0:14 into the period, Albert found E Paul Salata for six points. Vetrano, SF's kicking specialist since the inception of the club, booted his 107th consecutive PAT and finalized his record of scoring in all 56 games the 49ers played in the AAFC. Browns 14 49ers 7
    The Browns put the game away with a 69y drive. Otto got it started with a 23y pitch to Lavelli. The 11th play saw Dub Jones spin over RT for the last 4y with exactly 6:00 on the clock. Graham threw only two passes during the march but they were vital - 23 and 10y to Lavelli. Otto also carried three times on what today would be called QB draws for 4, 6, and 8y. Browns 21 49ers 7
    SF drove to the Cleveland 31 where they relinquished the ball on downs.
    The Browns ate up the remaining time with eleven straight runs, good for three first downs. Graham gained 20 himself on three attempts. To Edgar Jones went the honor of carrying the ball on the last play in AAFC history, a 4y rip through LG to the SF 25.

As the clock reached 0:00, Brown ran onto the mud-splattered field with a wide smile to slap the backs and shake the hands of his players.

  • The small but loyal crowd gave their hometown heroes an extended and boisterous round of applause.
  • The band played taps as the grounds crew lowered the flag. The curtain had come down on the All-America Football Conference.
Final statistics:
  • First downs: Browns 16 49ers 14
  • Yards rushing: Browns 41-217 ,49ers 33-122
  • Passing: Browns 17-7-0/128 49ers 25-9-0/108
  • Fumbles-Lost: Browns 0-0 49ers 2-0
  • Penalties: Browns 0-0 49ers 1-5
Postgame
  • Brown spoke privately to his team before allowing the press into the locker room. He thanked them for a great victory, which they deserved. He then looked ahead to the Shamrock Bowl the following weekend in Houston pitting the league champoin against a team of AAFC All-Stars. Let's enjoy the trip, fellas ... I want you to have fun. You can bring your wives along. And I promise you, fellas. I'll not needle you, not once [pause, look around the room] until next season. Wives on a road trip! Euphoria had gone to coach's head. When newsmen finally entered, players hoisted their coach on their shoulders for the photographers.
  • The Cleveland coach praised his team, saying they would have won on any field: They were a dogged team out there ... It was their greatest game, especially in defensive play. When a writer commented that Motley looked like his old self on his 63y TD run, Brown replied, He's always that good but can't always show it. Marion isn't a picnic for anybody. In setting up defenses for us, the first thing they do is concentrate on Marion. But they seldom stop him. Out there today, the 49ers looped their line and shot linebackers in an attempt to stop him. But they didn't.
  • The upcoming season dominated the postgame questioning just as it had the pregame press conferences. Brown told reporters, I'd like nothing better than to play the National League champ as soon as possible. [NFL Commissioner Bert Bell cited the league constitution, which forbade post-season play.] Paul declared that Cleveland might not have a team in the merged league. Unless we get the personnel we need and a place in the division with the better clubs, then we'll not be interested in the new league and we'll be out of business. We've earned the right to play the top clubs, and Cleveland is entitled to see the best - Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago's Bears, New York's Giants, and the Detroit Lions - and that's the division we want in if the league is split up that way. Brown wouldn't commit to coaching in the NFL. I'll have to get together with Mickey McBride [Browns' owner] before making any decisions. From what I've heard so far, I don't like the way they're pushing our entry around. When asked if he would retire, Brown scoffed, Why? I'm only 40. I'll be around a long time.
  • McBride, who had declared before the merger agreement that he would continue as owner only if the AAFC teams formed a separate conference in the NFL, reminded reporters: Paul is a very flexible fellow. He's not hard to get along with, and besides he's under a personal contract to me which runs through next year.
  • Two Browns announced their retirement. LB Lou Saban hoped to enter the coaching field. G Bob Gaudio, son of a millionaire contractor, said it's time to help the old man. Coach Brown indicated some other veterans might hang up their equipment for good. We've been together for four years, and some of the boys are beginning to tear at the seams. I'd hate to see any of them leave, but I won't hold them back if they want to get into some other business.
  • Buck Shaw, like Brown, blamed the wet field for the comparatively low yardage. Concerning Cleveland's chances in the NFL, Buck said, I'll bet on the Browns to beat the National League's best. Paul has a perfectly balanced team. They have a fine passer and a fine defense. They'll do all right.

Because of the small turnout, the players split 70% of the $68,529 take.

  • Each Brown earned a paltry $266.11.
  • The 49ers took home $172.61 apiece.
  • For the fourth year in a row, McBride presented his coach with a new car.


Otto Graham stiff arms a 49er.


Bill Willis


Chubby Grigg


A 49er hitches a ride on Marion Motley.


Dub Jones


Paul Salata


Lou Saban


Bob Gaudio

1949 AAFC Champion Cleveland Browns

 
References: History of the All-America Football Conference, David A. Bene (2005)
Paul Brown: The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Football's Most Innovative Coach, Andrew O'Toole (2008)
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